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Oregon's Ethanol Mandate Under Fire

Call it biofuel backpedaling.  Some Oregon lawmakers say it's time to repeal a one-year-old law that requires gasoline sold to contain a 10 percent ethanol blend.  Salem correspondent Chris Lehman reports.

Senator Vicki Walker says it's a case of good intentions gone wrong.  Last June the Eugene Democrat joined most of her Senate colleagues in voting for the ethanol mandate.  Now, just over a year later, she's calling that vote a mistake.

Senator Vicki Walker drives 15 miles to get to a station that sells ethanol-free gas to use in her power tools.

Vicki Walker: "I'm very concerned about the fact that the Legislature was trying to do something environmental, but really I don't think we've done what we expected to do."

Walker says she's going to try to overturn the law next year. She says she feels the pain of regret every time she gets behind the wheel of her car. 

It's a Toyota Camry, and Walker paid extra to get the hybrid version.  She figured she'd come out ahead by using less gas. At first, she was getting up to 40 miles per gallon.  Now, she gets nothing but bad news from her instrument panel.

Walker:  "I'm at 33.6 on this tank, which is horrible. It's absolutely horrible gas mileage.  And it makes me say to myself why did I buy a hybrid when I'm losing all this mileage that I'm supposed to have."

Walker blames the drop in mileage on the ethanol bill she voted for.  And she's not alone in her criticism of ethanol.  Each member of the Senate's Environment and Natural Resources Committee expressed reservations about the law at a recent hearing in Salem.

Politicians in Texas and Missouri are also complaining about ethanol mandates.  But not everyone is ready to give up.

John Gallaway:  "I'm not clear on why we would want to roll back the standards at this point.  I haven't heard a compelling case for doing so."

John Gallaway is with the Oregon Environmental Council.  That's a group that lobbied for the ethanol mandate.

Gallaway says not only does ethanol reduce the demand for foreign oil, it's also good for Oregon's economy.  That's because several companies are gearing up to meet the demand for ethanol. 

Gallaway says repealing the law could have a chilling effect.

John Gallaway:  "We've already indicated to both the biofuels industry and really the petroleum industry that we want to produce and use biofuels as part of our energy strategy.  It is not the single solution to our transportation needs but it's one of many solutions that will emerge."

Most ethanol is produced from corn, and critics say increased use of the additive is driving up food prices.  Supporters say that won't be an issue in coming years, when ethanol could be made from things like woodchips or algae. But what about that drop in fuel efficiency Senator Walker complained about? 

Even ethanol supporters say you'll see a three or four percent drop-off.  But John Urbanchuck, a consultant for a Midwest corn growers group, says that's hardly worth complaining about.

John Urbanchuk:  "If you have a car that has an average mileage of 22.3 miles to the gallon, what you're talking about is you're talking about losing maybe 7/10ths of a mile per gallon.  By comparison, if you're driving around with improperly inflated tires, you're going to lose about 5 to 6 miles per gallon."

Ethanol critics also say blended gasoline is murder on specialized engines like the kind found in power tools or boats.  The Legislature accounted for that by allowing stations to sell some ethanol-free gas but only a few stations are doing that.

Senator Vicki Walker calls it another unintended consequence lawmakers failed to consider.

Vicki Walker:  "I'm not ashamed of what we've done.  I will be ashamed and embarrassed if we don't address this problem that we've created, however."

The ethanol mandate had broad support in the House and the Senate last year, so it's unclear whether Walker will be able to convince enough of her colleagues to overturn the law.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski supports biofuels but a spokesperson says he's willing to listen to concerns.

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